PHOENIX — A collection of protesters have filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Phoenix after officers mass-arrested more than 120 people with copy-and-paste probable cause statements during a demonstration last May.
The federal lawsuit was filed in United States District Court of Arizona and specifically names Chief Jeri Williams and other key police leaders as defendants.
“It’s consistent with what I see when I come across a community with a high level of racism,” said Billy Murphy Jr., a prominent civil rights attorney from Baltimore who’s working with local lawyers on the case. “Any level of racism is intolerable. But the higher the level of racism, the more you have to fight against it.”
On May 30, 2020, Phoenix police arrested 124 people in the downtown area and booked all of them into jail with the same generic probable cause statement.
The statement didn’t include any information about the specific defendants and didn’t include their names or the specific allegations against them.
Judges tossed the cases at the defendants’ initial appearances for lacking sufficient evidence.
The mass arrests came as protests were continuing to build in the days following the murder of George Floyd and the killing of Dion Johnson on May 25.
Maxima Gurrero, a well-known local activist, was one of the people arrested that night.
She believes the department’s intent was to suppress future protesting.
“Definitely, don’t come out here because this is how (officers are) going to treat you and instill that fear,” Gurrero told ABC15.
The City of Phoenix released an initial emailed statement to ABC15 in response to news of the class-action lawsuit.
“The City is committed to the safety, security and constitutionally protected rights of all its residents and visitors. When the City is served with the complaint and has an opportunity to review the allegations in detail, it will file an appropriate response pursuant to the Rules of Civil Procedure which govern all federal civil lawsuits. Additionally, the City has hired 21CP Solutions to conduct an independent review examining Phoenix Police policies and procedures related to public demonstrations.”
At the time, ABC15 questioned Chief Williams about the issue following the arrests.
“There’s always a concern when there are not charges. But at the end of the day, I do know that my officers were functioning under justice, under trying to protect public safety, because our number 1 priority is safety,” Williams said. “ So you’re talking about pulling people out of cars, those cars were used to help fortify and give guns, knives, [Williams stopped and corrected herself as she didn’t mean to say guns and knives] rocks and bottles, water, food, to those individuals who were absolutely there to commit crimes.”
Defense attorneys said those claims were false and “trumped up.”
In protest cases throughout 2020, ABC15 found Phoenix police officers and Maricopa County prosecutors routinely exaggerated and lied about the circumstances.
In one notorious example, officials falsely claimed a group of protesters were a criminal street gang.
The class-action lawsuit over the copy-and-paste arrests is the first of what will likely be multiple large-scale civil cases that will be filed against the City of Phoenix and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office for their protest response and prosecutions.
The Phoenix Police Department is currently involved in an ongoing class-action case because of how it handled a protest in August 2017 following a rally held downtown for President Donald Trump.
In that lawsuit, attorneys unearthed evidence showing that members of Phoenix’s protest response team celebrated shooting a demonstrator in the groin with challenge coins that have language ties to hate speech.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@abc15.com.